'Tis the season to be spooky, bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha, ha, ha, and just as the garden gates jangle with the hollow plastic clatter of super scary skellingtons (they send shivers down your spine), so we search out some themed entertainment for a Halloween evening's reading. We find it in a shambling rotted cadaver, animated by the unnatural sorceries of old evils and whose airless lungs groan with the regrets of past terrible errors eternally re-echoing as the dead that will not die...
...Original English Language manga.
Now that's a bolt to chill the soul.
Oh, I'm being unfair. Amerimanga alumni like Svetlana Chmakova certainly poured their heart and soul into titles like Dramacon and Nightschool, and it demeans their genuine effort and belittles their earnest belief in the new market they hoped to create for it all now to be stereotyped as a lazy punchline. But an uncaring wider world that disregards such sweat and passion to only leave the Ozymandian relics of Vampire Cheerleaders and the Battlestar Galactica manga in our memories is an atmosphere of cosmic indifference of which I think the warped, fevered imagination of "weird fiction" author H.P. Lovecraft would probably have dreamed.
The OEL manga promoted by publishers like Seven Seas and Tokyopop may have been dead on arrival but like the pale pink pygmies sucking air on the shores of the seas inhabited by the deep ones its sister genre of manga adaptations of historical English literature have had more success. The "Manga Shakespeare" series had enough momentum to get to some of the Bard's more obscure plays (your English teacher probably put the Roman Polanski movie version of Macbeth on the video at some point, but when was the last time any school theatre trip went out to see As You Like It?), while Udon Entertainment have their own "Manga Classics" label of canonical literature like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations to help kids out with their GCSE coursework (their website even categorises entries by the U.S.A's 'Common Core' school syllabus). Dark Horse are the Elder God of OEL manga - before Tokyopop was even founded Dark Horse was producing licensed and domestically-made comic take-offs of titles like Bubblegum Crisis and Tenchi Muyo! - and they have now awoken to punish this younger generation of upstarts for their impudence with their own entry into the literary-adaptation genre by reviving the dark visions of H.P. Lovecraft.
Gou Tanabae has drawn several original works, but all quite short - Genius Loci, Kasane, and Mr. Nobody are only one, two, and three volumes long respectively - but he seems to have struck a rich continuous seam with adaptation work and in particular H.P. Lovecraft - while The Hound and Other Stories is the first of Tanabe's works to be officially released in English it's actually just one of several volumes of Lovecraft that he has produced from 2014 onwards (grown from a seed of his take on Lovecraft's gothic horror classic "The Outsider" dating back to 2007 in an anthology that was bizarrely shared with Socialist Realism titles from Antov Chekov and Maxim Gorky). The Hound and Other Stories itself is a slim anthology that collects Gou Tanabe's adaptations of three of Lovecraft's short stories :
- "The Temple", wherein the crew of a German U-Boat devastating Allied shipping discover that they are not the only beasts of the deep.
- "The Hound", wherein a pair of dissolute aristocratic youths alleviate their genteel ennui with the exhilarating extremity of grave-robbing only to dig up something better left buried.
- "The Forgotten City", wherein an explorer searches out a lost civilisation beneath the desert sands whose legend was whispered about in the ravings of the Mad Monk, Abdul Alhazred.
What's immediately striking about The Hound and Other Stories from the very cover onwards is how un-mangalike it is. While St. John's long flowing hair in title story "The Hound" might have a vague impression of a willowy bishonen it is as much that of a Byronic dilettante - Gou Tanabe's artwork has absolutely nothing of even remote manga stylisation in it and it is entirely realistic and illustrative. There are no big eyes and no small mouths, and unlike the last Japanese pass on Lovecraft in Nyaruko: Crawling With Love you might be surprised to discover that Nylarthotep, The Crawling Chaos, is most definitely not a cute anime girl with a knicker-flashing miniskirt and puppy-dog ahoge bouncing on her hairline! If it wasn't for the giveaway of the right-to-left panel order and the subtler tell of the square & oval speech bubbles you could well believe that this was an entirely ordinary Western comic book. It leaves me wondering why Dark Horse didn't flip the artwork and present it left-to-right - seeing as this has accessible art with none of manga's peculiarities to put off the uninitiated reader, and it has the name of a well-known author (at least to the geeky audience likely to buy comics and manga) attached to it, it would seem an ideal title to spread to a wider readership outside the manga ghetto. Dark Horse do seem to be somewhat aware of this potential - the adverts in the back matter of The Hound and Other Stories don't just cover Dark Horse's other manga but also several of their conventional Western comic titles as well - so it's curious why they didn't fully capitalise on it. The publisher Kodansha recently poked its head over the parapet with the flipped art for Ichi-F (read our thoughts on it here) and it wasn't shot off by a nerd-raging weeaboo so maybe it's time for Dark Horse to rediscover, like the unearthed antediluvian secrets of forbidding aeons past, the flipped-art format that they themselves mastered back in the Nineties with titles like Gunsmith Cats and Cannon God Exxxaxion. I suppose that Dark Horse have made a judgement that most people likely to read Lovecraft already have bought his books and their own domestic adaptations and spin-offs multiple times already, so it would actually be counter-productive promoting The Hound and Other Stories to a Western-focused audience because it would be dipping too many times into a dried-up well; while Eastern-focused readers may by contrast find manga adaptations of Western literature to be quite an intriguing and attractive novelty, so even if it appeals to a smaller audience it will actually make for higher sales within that audience. It certainly worked for me and I bought The Hound and Other Stories on the strength of that curiosity.
Looking at the artwork, it reminds me that poor old Lovecraft hasn't been treated terribly well in recent decades. His monsters were personifications of his tortured terror of corruption and entropy but Dagon and Azathoth have been debased from awful shades of human cowardice and impotence to a Halloween-costume pastiche of tabletop roleplaying sourcebooks and videogame flavour text. There's a telling Chainsawsuit cartoon where Cthulhu rises from the deep to destroy the world but sinks back down in disgust when everyone's cheering at how 'lolawsum' seeing him is. Perhaps this trend is appropriate, a bemused so-what shrug of amor fati that's the antidote to Lovecraft's exaggerated existential neuroses. The gods crumble just as human civilisation does. The Hound and Other Stories however is not a pastiche, but contrasts with the above as an entirely faithful and deferential translation of Lovecraft's original intent. I've not been a fan of Udon's aforementioned "Manga Classics" books and I've avoided buying into them due to how... pedestrian they are. When Mrs Rochester bursts from her prison and bites her husband in Jane Eyre this eruption of violence and madness was dispiritingly cold and passionless; the art was barely even shaded. This is certainly not a problem for Gou Tanabe and his broody, moody artwork is a perfect complement to Lovecraft's weird fiction. He invests splendid detail into the scenes, vividly apparent right from the start with the trapped knot of valves and piping in the submarine of "The Temple", not just photo-scanned but all of which have been hand-drawn for every twisting line of an ever-more inescapable tangle. I may even venture that Tanabe's version of "The Nameless City" is not only an adaptation but a significant improvement on Lovecraft's original - when the explorer descends into the crypts and reveals the murals of the ancient race we can see the dreadful wonder that Lovecraft merely reported to us was "of the utmost picturesqueness and extravagance" before taking off and leaving the reader to fill in the detail; and with panels of the procession not merely drawn flat against straight walls but chiselled into alcoves and crevices and dripping cornices that create an organic texture to represent the rotting unlife of the race's raging ghosts as well as impressions of cavernous depth to reinforce the age of the city with a hint of geological aeons. "The Hound" is no slouch, either - although lashed with long dark consuming shadows in a perhaps more conventional sort of bleakness and horror, little intricacies emerge between them such as the baroque opulence of St. John's mansion being suggested in decorated doorknobs, while details lurk even in the shadowy scenes with the inverse infills of dark corners with dim lanterns, night-time forests of thin whiplashing birch, wrinkles of old wood and suggestions of shapes as a shoulder of a matte gleam in a landscape of ebony and jet.
Tanabe's artwork is good in the smaller things, as well. Given his realistic style the characters of his stories do not have the extravagant expressiveness we normally associate with manga but he does very well in giving his character more subtler emotion. While "The Temple" is something of a mixed bag - accomplished enough technically, but with expressions skirting the line between being frozen in deathly rictus terror, or just simply flat and blank - the subdued amazement and creeping uncertainty of the explorer in "The Nameless City" as he plunges deeper into the crypts is visible in crinkles of his eyebrows even if there are no anime sweatdrops, and the narrator and St. John in "The Hound" can show tight fierce grins of mounting excitement at a new transgression as wall as agape terror at the monster stalking them.
One thing is odd though - in "The Hound" the characters are reading the Necronomicon, the infamous book of old forgotten lore in whose ink seeps much of the evil of the Cthulhu Mythos. A point is made that they're not reading the actual Necronomicon, just a censored English translation - and yet despite the beast within having its tail docked and wings clipped the book is still bound in what might not be vellum which is stretched and pinned into a distended screaming face on the front cover. I'm not sure if that is a metatextual comment on the commercial adulteration of Lovecraft's legacy or it's just plain hilarious.
I can then reliably endorse the quality of the artwork - what about the stories themselves? As I said earlier these are all direct, faithful and entirely straightforward adaptations of Lovecraft's stories, so you need to criticise Lovecraft if you're going to criticise the plots. "The Nameless City" is significantly improved for being adapted as a comic - the prose story was criticised for plain writing which the artwork can now add colour and detail. "The Temple" does illustrate a recurring problem in Lovecraft's work that many of the disasters and calamities that befall the characters would be simply solved if it wasn't for the sheer unreasonable bloody-minded obstinacy of their intransigent determination to put their head in the lion's mouth. In "The Colour Out Of Space" the Gardner family would still be alive if they had simply moved away from a place they themselves agreed was poisoned and unhealthy and similarly in "The Temple" you'll be asking why Klenze doesn't just toss the manky bit of pottery overboard even after the entire crew have died for it. You'll say that I'm missing the point and we need some device to drive us to the stygian halls that are the essence of weird fiction, and yes that's all true, but I suppose that years of being rubbed up the wrong way by the elemental Natsurium of anime harem protagonists' denseness has left me sore and chafing at seeing the same blindness to the outside world elsewhere!
Given how conservative and straightforward these adaptations are one curious difference though is that Tanabe has moved the setting of "The Temple" from the First to the Second World War. It's a strange and meaningless decision - the text doesn't even mention what year it is and literally the only reference to the wider situation is that the submarine's ensign has a swastika on it instead of an imperial eagle. Maybe Tanabe thought that readers know very little about the First World War but may have watched U-571 or Das Boot, or maybe it he just forgot himself and made a mistake. It's a minor and inessential thing in any case but a noticeable one.
Still, "The Hound" is rightly given top billing as the title story of this anthology. While Lovecraft hated what he'd written and other critics have just called it reheated Edgar Allen Poe, that very same description makes its macabre gothic grandeur perfectly suited for the visual medium of a manga; and the protagonists themselves are actually quite well-balanced as antiheroes, clearly intelligent young men undone by their rashness and overconfidence but not caricatured as smothered in decadence as a less subtle author may have done. "The Hound" is compelling from start to finish.
The last few paragraphs were a review of Lovecraft though more than of Tanabe, as ultimately these are transcripts of the original stories. If you're an established Lovecraft reader there are no twists in the tale to give you a new perspective on maybe overly-familiar works, but the quality of the artwork is still enough to make another look worthwhile; and if you have not read a great deal of Lovecraft they still remain an accurate guidebook to lead you into the twisting trails around the mountains of madness.